Northeast Private Sector
Donna Hilsinger - Sault Ste. Marie
Hospitality is in Donna Hilsinger’s blood.
“I grew up literally on the front line of the hospitality business,” said Hilsinger, recalling her first job as a bus lady wiping down tables at the family owned and operated Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sault Ste. Marie.
She was 10 years old. At 12, she was learning how to clean baseboards at another family run and owned business; the Algoma’s Water Tower Inn under the careful eye of experienced mentors. She eventually made it to front desk before reaching 16.
Some 30 years later, she is now a successful businesswoman and president of the full-service inn. The 180 room hotel houses many amenities, including an aqua spa, with indoor and outdoor pools and 8,000-square feet of meeting and event space including a C-nergy Conference Room.
“I think we’ve developed over the years, a very unique property,” she said.
Hilsinger never had much free time as a kid. While attending high school, she worked 30-hours-a-week and although she had good grades, Hilsinger admittedly was not much of a school person.
She moved to Ottawa with the intention of going into university, but was scooped up by the hospitality business once again.
Ottawa’s 400-room Skyline Hotel hired her and was astounded at what she was capable of accomplishing. Posting phone bills, checking people out, “To me it was just second nature,” she said. After all, she had spent half her life honing her service skills.
After a couple of years in Ottawa she moved back to the Sault and to the Algoma’s Water Tower Inn.
It was around this time, in the mid 80s, that the Searchmont Resort went into receivership. It was bought by a group of investors who included Hilsinger’s father, J.J. Hilsinger.
She began working for the resort in the late 80s as the inside operations manager and was able to watch the resort’s rapid growth.
When the resort was first purchased, it received about 12,000 skier visits per year. But by the early 90s, due in part to millions of dollars worth of new buildings and infrastructure, they were receiving about 80,000 skier visits per year.
“It was huge, huge, huge,” she said. “It provided millions and millions of dollars in economic benefit to the city.”
Unfortunately, winter recreation is an extremely tough business, said Hilsinger.
Due to hardships beyond her control, the resort went into receivership in July of 2000.
This was a difficult time for Hilsinger. Trying to keep the resort alive meant working 50-to-70-hours per week.
“It was a lot of years, a lot of money, a lot of life that was not lived very well.”
But she regrouped and returned to work at the Algoma’s Water Tower Inn. She realized she had found her purpose.
Part of this is due to re-discovering a long forgotten childhood passion - music, and in particular singing.
She began taking singing lessons about six years ago. She began performing again, something she hasn’t done since she was a child, singing in the Kiwanis Music Festival.
Three years ago, she put on a concert to benefit the Sault Ste. Marie hospital foundation.
She also took part in a recital where she had to perform 15 musical pieces.
If somebody had told her 10 years ago that she would be able to get up and perform in front of a modest crowd, she said, she would’ve thought they were crazy. But by talking to herself in a positive way, she believes, “you can achieve anything.”
“These are just the kinds of things that are wonderful to do for yourself,” she said. “We deserve to be able to express ourselves in those ways.”
She has also found meaning by being involved with the Algoma Fall Festival, where she sits as the board president.
It was a challenging task. Her first year as president, the festival lost $20,000, That was really hard, she said, but she didn’t let it discourage her.
“I really had to do some talking to myself then.”
And last year, she said, “Last year we had a tremendous season.” They grew their ticket revenues and attendance by about 100 per cent and eliminated their deficit.
“The other thing that I want to do, I want to create and enhance opportunities for kids to have access to the arts.”
She also said that she wants to make a music CD. But she mentions, “I don’t want to do that just for myself. I want there to be value outside of just me accomplishing that.”
“I haven’t figured how to do that yet, I just know that I want to do that. And I intend to do that. And I will.”